Circular digital economy

09-11-2021

When we talk about a circular economy, we usually talk about physical products and their resources. We look for solutions to reuse, recycle, or share them. In the digital world, we need a lot of technology and electronic equipment. But these complex products are extremely difficult to recycle. The consequence is that this sector is probably the least circular in existence. Millions of electronic waste are produced every year. And the majority of this is never recycled and dumped in landfills. So there is still a long way to go. And it will also require us to make behavioral changes. 

Another way of looking at the digital world is to look at the virtual products that exist within. The resources we need to produce these can be categorized into 3 areas: 

  1. We need to create data which is a concept of bits and bytes. And which is distributed by networks
  2. We need knowledge and expertise to build the products based on the specific requirements. 
  3. And we need time to develop them. Programming and development are services provided to create a final product. 

Energy is needed to build any digital product. Either by the technology we use or by the networks we need to distribute them. Data is defined by a bit. A false holds back the energy, while a true lets energy passes through the system. So the only way to define these resources is by measuring how much energy they need. Which is hard for time and knowledge, but is perfectly possible for data. We have to look at the data servers used to store it and the distance it has to travel to distribute it. It’s also about how much data is going through these systems that can tell us how sustainable it is. 

Using renewable energy is probably the most logical and easiest way to approach this problem. But it shouldn’t be the only one. We still need to think about how much energy is consumed. Can we solve this by reducing the amount needed? Or can we solve this by rethinking how we use digital products and services? So can we solve this problem by implementing a circular economy? 

We can already define some circular principles in the digital world. Sharing knowledge is done on many platforms. Either for everyday users or for developers that create these platforms. Software is created once and sold many times. Stock photography is available to reuse by anyone. There are quite some good examples that already exist mostly because they have economic value. 

The question remains how we as a user can participate in a circular economy. Can we reuse the content we create? Can we share an ebook with a friend or family member? Probably, but as long as we keep making copies of our digital stuff, the data and energy needed are also multiplying. Perhaps blockchain technology will solve this problem in the future. As digital assets in this environment are unique in existence. 

It doesn’t mean digital products can’t already be part of a circular economy. What happens after a digital product loses its value needs to be part of the design process. It’s a question of thinking ahead and how the product can be repurposed to a new context. It might be obvious for software that is needed to improve efficiency but might be harder for products that serve a different purpose.

In contrast with other sectors, the solution can be found in technology. And smarter development processes are needed to ensure sustainable digital products. However, as a user, we should be aware of our digital energy consumption. Because when we are posting selfies online, sharing GIF memes, or buying cheap and useless stuff, we are leaving a carbon footprint behind in the process. 

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